Should I Pay Down Debt Before Saving Money?

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If you have high debt and little to no savings, is it more important to sock away for the future or pay what you owe? Learn how to balance savings and debt. [Duration- 2:15]

Debt in any form can be overwhelming, but especially so when it interferes with your ability to build up your savings. This situation begs the essential question: Should you save money and put off repaying your debt or should you pay down the debt and wait to begin saving?

Luckily, there are winning strategies for tackling debt and savings simultaneously. The goal is to find a balance where you can become debt-free and still sleep soundly knowing you have some money socked away.

First, create an emergency fund

Though you may want to pay your debts as soon as possible, it’s important to prioritize emergency savings—even a small amount—that you can use in case an unexpected expense arises. A sudden ER visit or a spouse losing their job can throw a significant wrench into your financial plan. Without designated savings to pull from during such a crisis, you may feel the need to rely on high-interest credit cards or personal loans to cover sudden costs. However, doing so will only compound your debt and make the overall problem worse.

It’s generally a good idea to have six months’ worth of expenses saved in an emergency fund, but this may not be realistic if you are also dealing with debt or otherwise struggling financially. If you’re having difficulty saving at the recommended level, aim to save three months’ worth of expenses instead. Having at least some money set aside for emergencies is better than nothing, and you can always focus on building savings again once you’ve lowered your debt.

As you begin putting away money for an emergency fund, open a high-interest savings account so your money can grow when you pivot to focus on paying down your debt. While you continue to build your emergency fund, it’s also important to make at least the minimum payments on your debts to prevent late fees and potential damage to your credit scores.

Next, focus on debt repayment

It’s important to note that your individual debt repayment strategy will vary based on what type of debt you have. If you primarily have student loans, for example, you may be able to look into deferment, forbearance or loan forgiveness through your loan provider. If you are mostly dealing with credit card debt, these solutions will not be available.

Regardless of what kind of debt you owe, there are two common strategies for repayment: the snowball method and the avalanche method. Both will ultimately help you reach debt-free living but in slightly different ways.

The snowball method consists of listing your debts by total amount and paying off the smallest ones first, slowly working your way up to the most expensive. This strategy is more focused on the psychological benefits of paying off debt. Many people find that the satisfaction you feel when paying small amounts first is highly motivational and helps lessen the emotional burden of debt.

With the avalanche method, you rank your loans based on interest rates, rather than by the total dollar amount. Then you focus on paying off the balances with the highest interest rates first, while continuing to pay the minimum each month on all other loans. This can be particularly helpful if you have credit card debt in addition to student loans or other types of loans, as interest rates are typically higher on credit card accounts.

Whichever strategy you choose, try to make payments beyond the minimum each month. One simple trick is to earmark any unexpected money—maybe a bonus or a birthday gift from a family member—for debt payments. This also works when you spend less on groceries than you anticipated or otherwise have extra money in your monthly budget.

Finding a balance that works for you

The problem for many Americans is that their debts are so significant compared to their monthly income that it will take many years to pay the balance down to zero. While it might be tempting to simply postpone saving while you’re paying off debts, that often isn’t a realistic option. Even families with high debt want to be able to purchase a home, have a child, pay for college or provide support for ailing loved ones — and that requires substantial savings.

The key, then, is to find the balance that works for you and your family, agree on a plan and stick with it. Our recommendation is to prioritize paying down significant debt while making small contributions to your savings. Once you’ve paid off your debt, you can then more aggressively build your savings by contributing the full amount you were previously paying each month toward debt.

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